A culinary tour of Xalapa: Dining in the home of Jalapeños
When I told Carmen Titita Ramirez, owner of the highly acclaimed El Bajio restaurant in Mexico City, that I would be spending time in Xalapa, she responded with her usual exuberance and proceeded to write a list of regional dishes I had to try and where to try them. Titita was born and raised in Xalapa, comes from a family of gourmet cooks, and knows whereof she speaks.
Taking her list, I set off to explore the culinary wonders of the city and the surrounding towns of Xico, Coatepec and Naolinco. Xalapa (also sometimes spelled Jalapa) is the capital of the state of Veracruz, but differs considerably from the state's steamy, tropical Gulf coast in both climate and ambience.
The cool, verdant hills of the north central region of Veracruz, about 3,000 feet higher than the coast, are most often covered in a mist called chipichipi, which keeps things green year round and produces the perfect conditions for growing what is considered Mexico's best coffee. The gourmet strains of Coffea arabica grown in this region are an important source of income and pride. Xalapa is known for its many cozy cafes, both indoors and out, where an international community of students, Xalapa Symphony Orchestra members, and visitors to the famous Anthropology Museum mingle with the locals. (Because of its many cultural attractions, Xalapa is dubbed "The Athens of Veracruz.")
Always a cosmopolitan city, Xalapa was founded as a settlement in 1380 by about eighty teochichimeca families. Its name derives from the Nahuatl xallapan, meaning "spring water in a sandy place." The teochichimeca established Xalapa as an important halfway point between the coast and the altiplano, Mexico's high central plateau. When the Spaniards arrived, those who could afford to avoid the scorching heat and extreme humidity of the port of Veracruz built homes in and around Xalapa, where much of the colonial-era architecture is still in evidence.
All of the products coming from Spain to the Mexican colonies had to be transported to Central Mexico via Xalapa, on the same route that had been taken by Cortes. The city was so crucially located that during colonial times it was the home of Mexico's largest Spanish trade fair. Such quintessentially Spanish ingredients as olives and olive oil, almonds and other nuts, raisins and several kinds of dried fruit, cheeses, wines and vinegar all made an important culinary imprint on Xalapa. When these European ingredients were combined with the astounding variety of fruit, vegetables and edible flowers so abundant in these lush, fertile hills, a superb regional cuisine was born.
Perhaps the best known of the local products is the jalapeño (or xalapeño) chile, one of the most widely used in Mexican cooking. Besides being used in the ubiquitous Mexican table condiment jalapeños en escabeche - jalapeños in vinaigrette - in Xalapa jalapeños are stuffed with meat, chicken or fish fillings, including minilla, best described as a savory fish hash. They are also used in a tasty local salsa made by grinding fresh jalapeños with cilantro and garlic. When smoked and dried, the jalapeño is called a chipotle and is pickled in a sweet-and-hot brown sugar and vinegar marinade. It is also frequently packed in adobo sauce and sold in cans. In Xalapa and other highland areas, chipotles are stuffed with cheese and baked, a traditional holiday dish.
Another local chile important in the regional cuisine is the comapeño, a small, dried, bright red morsel of flavor without too much heat. It is ground with peanuts and garlic to make salsa macha, and with toasted sesame seeds to make tlatonile, a seasoning paste used in much the same way as mole paste. Unlike mole paste, tlatonile is not necessary diluted with stock and served as a sauce, but is often presented as a condiment to be spread on tacos, or added to soup in the same way the French use the pesto-like pistou.
And speaking of soup, Xalapa's cooks produce a huge variety, called caldos, much appreciated in the cool mountain climate. There are chileatoles such as I had never seen in Central Mexico, where the chile-laden broth is thick with corn kernels and masa and flavored with herbs. In Xalapa, I passed on this typical green chileatole that I can get at home in Cholula, but tried a red one, a mushroom version, and one made with beef, all of them rich, delicious and comforting. The ranches in the surrounding area produce the excellent meat that goes into these broths, and even in the classic green chileatole, Xalapan cooks add other vegetables in addition to corn, making them heartier and healthier.
The use of more vegetables seemed to me to be a characteristic of the local cuisine, not surprising given the year-round growing season and nearly perfect conditions. In addition to green beans, fava beans and zucchini squash, the very popular chayote is invariably added to a Xalapan mole verde, as well as being served stuffed and as a salad. The chayote's root, called chayotestle, is eaten sliced into discs, batter-dipped, fried and served with a red sauce or in a tomato broth.
Edible flowers, abundant in the region, are also a hallmark of its cooking. Besides the very common flor de calabaza - squash blossom - present in soups and quesadillas all over Mexico, Xalapans make use of flor de izote - yucca flower. The beautiful white blossoms are added to caldos and red mole, and cooked in a dish called flor de novia - "bride's flower" - in which they are gently scrambled with tomatoes, chiles, onion and eggs. Gasparitos, the bright red flowers of the colorín tree, receive similar treatment, served in an egg torte that resembles an Italian frittata and is most often served with salsa and beans.
The beans that are an integral part of most everyday Mexican meals are, in Xalapa as well as all of Veracruz, of the small, black variety that so appealed to the Spaniards when they came to the coastal region. In Xalapa, they are incorporated into corn masa to make gorditas infladas - puffy fried tortillas - and made into a sauce for the Xalapan version of enfrijoladas, called zopilotes xalapeños - "Xalapan buzzards" - no doubt because of the black sauce.
And after a meal of fragrant soup, beans and Xalapan mole, there is always dessert. Since there are so many cafes and such delicious coffee, it seems that anytime is dessert time in Xalapa. There is usually a tempting orange rosca (ring-shaped coffee cake) or an almond cake or hazelnut torte to go with a cup or two of coffee. For lighter desserts, locals turn to tropical fruits such as pineapples, guava and mamey for flans, timbales, and pudding-like sweets.
Judging from the number of restaurants and local people eating out, it seems that Xalapa is a place where people appreciate good food. There are a few upscale places, but not many and not pretentious, with the focus being on the food itself. Many of the restaurants are family owned and have been for a couple of generations. Although I encourage visitors to explore the city and try restaurants that seem to beckon, my favorites were Nico's for seafood, La Casona del Beaterio for traditional Xalapan dishes, and La Churrería del Recuerdo for the donut-like fried dough strips called churros, and late-night snacks and suppers.
A trip to Xalapa, especially welcoming during the spring dry season in other parts of Mexico, would ideally include visits to a few of the surrounding towns. The following should be on any foodie's itinerary:
Considered Mexico's gourmet coffee center, Coatepec holds its annual coffee fair every spring, but the aroma of freshly roasted beans permeates the town year round. Café de altura - high country coffee - is sold in several small shops located in the streets around the lovely little plaza. Shop owners are eager to share knowledge and answer questions about the different beans, roasts and grinds. This is one way of encouraging tourism in the town, the other being a small shopping area selling boxes and carvings made of the wood from the coffee plants.
Another attraction is Coatepec's food. Restaurants specialize in the preparation of local trout as well as seafood that arrives fresh daily from the coast. Casa Bonilla is justifiably famous for its seafood dishes, including shrimp and langostinos, which can be enjoyed on the patio surrounding a tropical garden complete with parrots and a toucan.
Although most tourists who get to Xico go to see its spectacular Cascada de Texolo waterfall, for many, especially Mexican tourists, the main attraction in Xico is the food. Famous all over Mexico, mole de Xico is a dark mole, sweeter and richer than mole poblano, with the fruity taste of the plantains, apples and prunes that are added in addition to the raisins used in a classic mole poblano. A good place to sample mole de Xico is El Campanario, where it can also be bought to bring home.
Cooking with fruits and nuts is a distinguishing characteristic of Xico's culinary repertoire, in part because it is a center of the production of fruit liqueurs, notably those made with oranges and berries. The blackberry brandy is used to flavor a unique chicken stew, and there is a similar version that uses orange liqueur and orange juice. An over-the-top braised pork is cooked with a couple of different kinds of fruit liqueur, and the almonds that go into Xico's moles are also used to make a delicious almond soup.
The balconied, pastel painted colonial-era houses that give Naolinco an air of nostalgia serve as the background for a fine leather-crafting tradition as well as a time-honored gastronomical culture. Naolinco, too, has its own dark mole, a less sweet version of Xico's, and well worth trying.
There are famous waterfalls here, too, and after a visit to the cascadas, try some of Naolinco's famous cheeses and breads, especially the Day of the Dead bread called pan de Naolinco. Sweets such as cicadas - coconut candy - and dulce de leche - milk candy - are also local specialties.